Quarter Wit, Quarter Wisdom: Basic Operations for GMAT Inequalities

We know that we can perform all basic operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division on two equations:

a = b

c = d

When these numbers are equal, we know that:

a + c = b + d (Valid)

a – c = b – d (Valid)

a * c = b * d (Valid)

a / c = b / d (Valid assuming c and d are not 0)

When can we add, subtract, multiply or divide two inequalities? There are rules that we need to follow for those. Today let’s discuss those rules and the concepts behind them.

We can add two inequalities when they have the same inequality sign.

a < b

c < d

a + c < b + d (Valid)

Conceptually, it makes sense, right? If a is less than b and c is less than d, then the sum of a and c will be less than the sum of b and d.

On the same lines:

a > b

c > d

a + c > b + d (Valid)

Case 2: What happens when the inequalities have opposite signs?

a > b

c < d

We need to multiply one inequality by -1 to get the two to have the same inequality sign.

-c > -d

a – c > b – d

Subtraction:

We can subtract two inequalities when they have opposite signs:

a > b

c < d

a – c > b – d (The result will take the sign of the first inequality)

Conceptually, think about it like this: from a greater number (a is greater than b), if we subtract a smaller number (c is smaller than d), the result (a – c) will be greater than the result obtained when we subtract the greater number from the smaller number (b – d).

Note that this result is the same as that obtained when we added the two inequalities after changing the sign (see Case 2 above). We cannot subtract inequalities if they have the same sign, so it is better to always stick to addition. If the inequalities have the same sign, we simply add them. If the inequalities have opposite signs, we multiply one of them by -1 (to get the same sign) and then add them (in effect, we subtract them).

Why can we not subtract two inequalities when they have the same inequality sign, such as when a > b and c > d?

Say, we have 3 > 1 and 5 > 1.

If we subtract these two, we get 3 – 5 > 1 – 1, or -2 > 0 which is not valid.

If instead it were 3 > 1 and 2 > 1, we would get 1 > 0 which is valid.

We don’t know how much greater one term is from the other and hence we cannot subtract inequalities when their inequality signs are the same.

Multiplication:

Here, the constraint is the same as that in addition (the inequality signs should be the same) with an extra constraint: both sides of both inequalities should be non-negative. If we do not know whether both sides are non-negative or not, we cannot multiply the inequalities.

If a, b, c and d are all non negative,

a < b

c < d

a*c < b*d (Valid)

When two greater numbers are multiplied together, the result will be greater.

Take some examples to see what happens in Case 1, or more numbers are negative:

-2 < -1

10 < 30

Multiply to get: -20 < -30 (Not valid)

-2 < 7

-8 < 1

Multiply to get: 16 < 7 (Not valid)

Division:

Here, the constraint is the same as that in subtraction (the inequality signs should be opposite) with an extra constraint: both sides of both inequalities should be non-negative (obviously, 0 should not be in the denominator). If we do not know whether both sides are positive or not, we cannot divide the inequalities.

a < b

c > d

a/c < b/d (given all a, b, c and d are positive)

The final inequality takes the sign of the numerator.

Think of it conceptually: a smaller number is divided by a greater number, so the result will be a smaller number.

Take some examples to see what happens in Case 1, or more numbers are negative.

1 < 2

10 > -30

Divide to get 1/10 < -2/30 (Not valid)

Takeaways:

Addition: We can add two inequalities when they have the same inequality signs.

Subtraction: We can subtract two inequalities when they have opposite inequality signs.

Multiplication: We can multiply two inequalities when they have the same inequality signs and both sides of both inequalities are non-negative.

Division: We can divide two inequalities when they have opposite inequality signs and both sides of both inequalities are non-negative (0 should not be in the denominator).